“Severance,” a nerve-wracking workplace drama, was originally slated to begin filming in March 2020, but pandemic closures pushed shooting into the fall. So in October 2020, Adam Scott, the star of the show, left his family in Los Angeles and flew to New York.
For more than eight months, on the days he was able to work — production was interrupted several times for positive tests and Scott himself contracted Covid-19 in February 2021 — he was driven to a busy studio in the South Bronx and surrounded by ( shielded, masked) colleagues. He was then taken back to a quiet Tribeca apartment where he spent his nights alone, providing an odd parallel to the show itself.
“Severance,” the first two episodes of which will premiere on Apple TV+ on February 18, takes a speculative approach to work-life balance. Scott plays Mark Scout, a department head at Lumon Industries, a shadowy company. (When was the last time a TV show had a business that wasn’t?) Mark and his colleagues each voluntarily undergo a surgical procedure known as severance pay, which creates a mental cordon so that your work itself has no knowledge or memories. of your house itself and vice versa. Think of it as an NDA for the soul.
Scott, 48, hasn’t always had a good balance. “My limits are everywhere,” he said. “I often have way too much of my self-esteem in whether or not I work and in the perception of my work once I’ve done it. That is unhealthy.” Living alone, away from his wife and two children, mourning his mother who had passed away just before the pandemic, that balance was not getting any better.
Still, the job gave him a place to put those feelings. The role requires him to alternate between the unsuspecting “innie” Mark, a vacant middle manager, and the dented “outtie” Mark, grieving for his late wife. Some scenes have the feel of a comedy at work, a genre Scott knows well. (Imagine “Parks and Recreation,” where Scott spent six seasons, remade by Jean-Paul Sartre.)
Others have the feel of a thriller, a drama, a sci-fi conjecture – all styles he is less familiar with. Ultimately, this dual role allows Scott to do what he does best: play a mild-mannered handsome dude, while also showing the pain, shame, and passion that underlie that pose.
“He understands how strange it is to be normal,” said Ben Stiller, executive producer and director of the series. “He’s got something normal, a normal manhood. He is also aware that there is no real common man.”
Scott just wanted to be an actor. As a child in Santa Cruz, California, he watched a film crew transform his street into the setting for a miniseries version of “East of Eden.” The road got dirty. The houses returned to their Victorian origins. Horses and carriages rode along his lawn. This was magic, he thought, and he wanted to do everything he could to get into what he called “that crazy magical fantasy world.”
Whenever he had a moment alone (and as the youngest child of divorced parents this was quite often), he introduced himself as the hero of his own movie – usually a Steven Spielberg movie. He acted all school except a year or two in high school when he worried what theater boy status would do to his popularity. But he was also a water polo player, so somehow it all worked out.
He enrolled in a two-year program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Los Angeles. Back then, a classmate and quick friend, Paul Rudd, admired his work. “I’m like, this guy is really funny,” Rudd recalled. “And dry and very clear, of course.”
Scott graduated at age 20, made the rounds and spent a decade and a half booking just enough work to keep himself solvent — a few episodes here, a supporting role in a movie there — without ever feeling like he had arrived.
“I held on to a piece of dental floss for 15 years,” he said.
In the early ’00s, his wife-to-be, Naomi Scott (then Naomi Sablan), asked him if he had a backup plan. “And it was so, so painful, his reaction to that,” she recalls. “He was like, ‘There’s none.'”
Then it happened. He landed a part in the 2008 Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly comedy “Step Brothers” after another actor quit. He then starred as Henry in the cult Starz comedy ‘Party Down’, replacing Rudd, who had other commitments. He missed out on a role on the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” but the show’s creators brought him in at the end of the second season as Ben Wyatt, a love interest to Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope. Suddenly he had become a leftist leading man.
In “Step Brothers” he played a yuppie chuckle, but the roles in “Party Down” and “Parks and Recreation” felt more personal. He spent those failing years to Henry, a future actor whose career was disfigured by a series of beer commercials, and to Ben, a stern bookkeeper with a notorious past.
“I was like, oh, sure, I feel all these things deeply,” Scott said, “I’ve been here for 15 years and don’t have much to show for it, and a little hurt by the conditions of this village.”
He loved the job. “His signature trait is that he just wants to do a really good job,” Michael Schur, a creator of “Parks and Recreation,” told me.
But he didn’t like everything that came with it. “I started to be recognized, and it just felt very different from what I’d imagined that feeling in those 15 years or so.” said Scott. “It felt more like I had a disease on my face than it was recognized.”
“It didn’t feel like this warm acceptance and hug,” he continued. “I always thought it would feel like love or something, but it’s a weird, isolating feeling.”
Scott spoke during a video call from his home in Los Angeles. The call had started late because he spilled an espresso all over the table where his computer was. The espresso came from a top Italian machine that takes half an hour to heat up and which he lovingly cleans every evening. If this sounds like the habits of a man for whom the little things matter, maybe!
In conversations, he was candid, self-critical, determinedly kind, without sacrificing the harshness that often defines him on screen. He had appeared in the video window – goggles, ghostly white, neck beard – wearing a T-shirt and a sweatshirt under a flannel. Half an hour later he removed the washcloth.
“Sorry, I just started sweating under your question,” he said. (The question, “What made ‘Party Down’ so great?”) He doesn’t like the press, but he made it seem like we had all the time in the world. He kept telling me how well I was doing.
“He’s got a huge dose of humility,” Nick Offerman, his Parks and Recreation co-star, had told me. Offerman also said that what Scott does so well — on-screen, but perhaps off-screen — is to embrace what he called, “a kind of geeky normality, the taste of behavior that most people try to avoid if they can.” help because it is too human.” (Offerman also told me to ask what Scott does with his hair to make it so voluminous, but Scott didn’t speak.)
Scott is not cool. He is unabashed in his fandom and has even made a podcast about how much he loves U2. His enthusiasm for REM is legendary. Often his characters go a little too fast, wanting things a little too much. (Proof? “The Comeback Kid,” a Season 4 episode of “Parks and Recreation,” in which an unemployed Ben takes a deep dive into Claymation and Calzones.)
But several of his colleagues also identified a kind of reserve in him – the feeling that he is holding back something while playing, which makes the performance richer.
“There’s something about the set of his eyes,” Schur said. “You just feel there’s depth, something you don’t have immediate access to.”
Poehler, co-star of Scott’s “Parks and Recreation,” echoed this. “There’s a very internal, secret, secretive part of him as an actor,” she said.
That tension makes him suitable for the coupled roles of ‘Severance’. The hard part is working for the “innie” Mark, a guy who just wants to do a great job, no matter how bizarre the job is. And that restraint helps with “outtie” Mark, who splashes his pain with booze, jokes, and distance.
“It’s the same man,” Scott explained. “It’s just that one is more or less clean, and the other has lived for many years and has been through a lot.” Playing the ‘outtie’ made him realize how much he had suppressed his own grief over his mother’s death. So that’s in there too.
It was a long shoot and, given the pandemic protocols, often a lonely one. Some days were spent almost entirely in a windowless Lumon Industries room—all fluorescent light and plastic room dividers and soul-crushing wall-to-wall carpeting. “It really drove me crazy,” Scott’s co-star John Turturro told me.
Scott said it more softly. “It was eight strange months,” he said.
But he had a job, the only job he ever wanted. So Scott, who has never had a real office job, came every day to the fake office that allows a negative PCR test. He had work to do.